By Carolyn Dubnik
Ah, fall – a season filled with crunchy leaves, crisp air, football games, and of course, pumpkin. The pumpkin flavor is omnipresent throughout the fall season – farmers’ markets are overflowing with the vivid orange fruits (yes, pumpkins are a fruit – who knew?), Trader Joe’s aisles are filled with pumpkin-flavored products, and of course, the infamous Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte is back in stock. While it is undeniable that the pumpkin trend has been taken too far once or twice (I’m looking at you, pumpkin spice Pringles), there are some serious benefits to taking part in the pumpkin mayhem!
Pumpkins have many health benefits. They are packed with beta-carotene, which is the plant form of vitamin A – one cup of cooked pumpkin contains 245% of the recommended dietary intake (RDI)! Vitamin A is important for vision, cell growth, and a healthy immune system. In fact, vitamin A has been shown to strengthen the immune system and help fight infections. We could all use an immune system boost once the weather starts to cool down, right? Not only does the vitamin A in pumpkin boost the immune system, but the high vitamin C and vitamin E content help to fight off those seasonal colds as well. Eating seasonal produce, like pumpkin in the autumn, can support our health.
The vitamins pumpkins contain (A, C, & E) are also antioxidants, which function to neutralize free radicals and stop them from damaging the cells in our bodies. Free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which has been shown to be linked with chronic illnesses including cancer and heart disease. The antioxidants in pumpkin include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. A meta-analysis of 13 studies found evidence that increasing intake of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene is associated with significantly lower risk of stomach cancers.
Pumpkin is also high in fiber, which has amazing health benefits. Most Americans do not eat enough fiber, which puts them at higher risk for ailments such as cardiovascular disease. The recommended daily fiber intake is between 25-35 grams (depending on age and gender), but according to the 2013-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, most American adults are only meeting 50-60% of this goal. One cup of pumpkin contains 7 grams of fiber, which will put you well on your way to meeting your daily recommendation.
Not only is the pumpkin fruit great for your health, but pumpkin seeds are as well! One ounce of shell-free pumpkin seeds (the green pepitas that you can buy at the grocery store) contain 37% of the RDI for magnesium, 23% of the RDI for iron, and 7 grams of plant-based protein among many other nutrients. Therefore, pumpkin seeds can be a great post-workout snack – magnesium supports muscle relaxation and prevents muscle cramps, iron supports healthy circulation, and protein helps to rebuild muscles.
In order to reap the health benefits of pumpkin, choose whole fruits or pure canned pumpkin over the pumpkin-flavored imposters, which are often laden with added sugar. Did you know that a Grande Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte contains 50 grams of sugar-twice the daily recommended amount?
Pure pumpkin can easily be incorporated into foods like muffins, oatmeal, pasta sauces, salads, smoothies, and soups. It is also acts as a binding agent and makes a great substitute for eggs in vegan baked goods – replace 1 egg with ¼ cup pumpkin puree. The pumpkin possibilities are endless! Next time you’re at your local supermarket, pick up a can of pumpkin and join in on the fun! Your body and taste buds will thank you.
Peer-edited by Erin Coffman